DALLAS, Ga. — Before he saw the destruction of September 11, 2001, Tim Murphy smelled it.
"When we got to the West Side, we could see it all from there," Murphy said, describing the horror of what he saw at the World Trade Center.
"Cars were burning," James D'Avolio explained. "Buildings were on fire, there was a rain of debris coming down from the sky."
20 years later, the former New York City firefighters joined together for a quiet moment at Paulding County's Liberty Garden, the site of a permanent September 11th memorial. Murphy served for 16 years as a New York City firefighter with Engine 39 on East 67th Street. D'Avolio was a FDNY captain, a hazmat 1 commander in Queens.
Both men were off-duty when the first plane hit. Both kissed their families goodbye, grabbed their gear and headed for the Twin Towers via any way possible.
"Our guys were down there, they responded to the alarm," he explained. "We were just wondering if they were going to be alright."
Murphy and D'Avolio joined first responders in the search for survivors and their comrades, firefighters who had responded to the initial call. For hours, Murphy had no idea whether his brother, a fellow firefighter, was alive.
"All we did was search," D'Avolio shared, estimating he was only home four times over the next 30 days. "As firemen, we have the ability to put ourselves in a state of mind. We just continue to drive forward. We put our emotion on a shelf."
Instead, the first responders focused on the mission of saving lives. By that afternoon, Murphy thankfully found out his brother was okay. Yet, neither Murphy nor D'Avolio's companies would escape the loss from that tragic day.
"Most guys who were missing friends and brothers, there was no other place they really wanted to be other than the site to try and find their brothers," D'Avolio explained.
Twenty years later, the emotions of September 11th, 2001, and the months thereafter, remain just under the surface. The men find comfort and camaraderie in a group of former NYC officers living in Georgia that Murphy has gathered over the years: the retired N.Y.C. Shields of Georgia.
"We were finding each other and just decided to keep together," Murphy said. "Especially guys from 9/11. To have somebody that was there that knows about it that, that you can lean on."
The group offers friendship and a mutual understanding that the events of September 11th, and the subsequent sadness, may subside, but never really end.
"I wake up every morning with thoughts of September 11th. You could look at a clock and it says 9:11, and it brings it all back again," D'Avolio said.
"It'll pop up or you may have a dream about something. It's still there. It tends to get worse as it gets closer to 9/11," Murphy explained. "But then I really think about 'I'm here.' I was blessed to not be in that building or to be down there when those buildings come down."
Murphy said that is what brings him back to reality.
"There are people who don't have, who grew up without their fathers, and for me, I just hug my kids every day till this day," he said.
The men keep reminders close. D'Avolio carries a photo of fellow firefighter Joseph Hunter in his wallet, and while difficult, the men continue sharing the stories to ensure the heroes of 9/11 are never forgotten.
"The 19 guys I lost. The members Timmy lost. They didn't have a chance to say goodbye," D'Avolio said. "They just did what they signed up to do. Ordinary people turned into extraordinary human beings."